WESTMINSTER (CBS/AP) - A proposed first-in-the-nation ban on sales of all tobacco and nicotine products has bitterly divided the small community of Westminster.
A public Board of Health meeting Wednesday night was cut short after the standing room only crowd began to chant in protest of the ban. The meeting was held in a school cafeteria rather than the usual cramped conference room at Town Hall.
Only a handful of the dozens who wanted to speak did.
"I find smoking to be one of the most disgusting habits anybody could possibly do. On top of that, I find this proposal to be even more of a disgusting thing," resident Kevin West said at the meeting.
The crowd got rowdy just minutes into the meeting. "It just got too unruly, no one is respecting the ground rules," Board of Health Chair Andrea Crete said. "We have to close it."
After the meeting was ended, Crete and the other Board of Health members got a police escort to their cars.
The crowd sang "God Bless America" as the room was cleared.
"This is inexplicable, I can't even believe it," resident Cindy Hastings-Brutvan said. "Nationally we feel like a laughing stock in America right now and we're not."
The Board of Health will now accept written opinions from Westminster residents until December 1. The three-person Board will rule on the issue after that.
"To me it's just a little town playing big government," resident Wayne Hancock said.
Officials in the central Massachusetts town said they're fed up with bubblegum-flavored cigars, electronic cigarettes and other new products that appeal to young people. They said the easiest course of action is to enact a total ban on all sales within town lines.
The American Lung Association said Westminster would be the first community in the U.S. to take such sweeping action.
Town health agent Elizabeth Swedberg has the support of nonsmokers like Vicki Tobin, who said she'd like to keep cigarettes out of sight — and mind — of her three young boys.
"I just think it's a great step in a positive way to promote a healthy town, a healthy lifestyle," she said.
But shopkeeper Brian Vincent, whose country store on Main Street sells $100,000 worth of tobacco products a year, said he's collected at least 900 signatures on a petition against the ban. Vincent said smokers will simply make their purchases in other towns, and probably buy their gas and groceries there as well.
"Having other adults decide what legal item we're not allowed to consume just makes you wonder: If this passes, what could be next? Sugar? Bacon?" he said.
Tobacco industry groups also have called the proposal a "bad policy" that would harm local employers.
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